BERLIN — The European Union health chief held an emergency meeting with German officials on the E. coli crisis Wednesday but avoided publicly criticizing their efforts even as more people died or were infected by the deadly bacteria.
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Health Minister Daniel Bahr said 26 people have now died since the start of May — 25 in Germany and one in Sweden.
Germany's national disease control center, the Robert Koch Institute, reported 300 more E. coli cases Wednesday, raising the total to 2,648. Nearly 700 of those victims are hospitalized with a serious complication that can cause kidney failure. Another 100 E. coli cases are in other European countries and the United States.
Outside health experts and even German lawmakers have strongly criticized the German investigation, saying the infections should have been spotted much sooner and having state-by-state probes was hurting the search for a cause.
Authorities in Hamburg have been widely criticized for issuing a warning about Spanish cucumbers, only to retract it later after the E. coli on those vegetables was not the strain that caused the outbreak. Then Lower Saxony health officials said German-grown sprouts appeared to be the cause, only to backtrack a day later when initial tests turned out negative. Tests on the sprouts from northern Germany are continuing.
After the meeting, EU health chief John Dalli said the cucumber warning was "justified" based on the data Hamburg authorities had at the time. He urged European countries to "work together, cooperate and share expertise to address this outbreak and bring it to an end as soon as possible."
"This is not the time for criticism and recriminations, but the time to focus our efforts at all levels in order to get to grips on this crisis," he said.
In Germany, states are responsible for such investigations, reporting their findings to federal authorities.
Still eyeing sprout farm
More tests came back negative Wednesday on sprout samples from an organic farm in the northern town of Bienenbuettel but the farm is still considered a possible source for the outbreak. German Agriculture Minister Ilse Aigner said eight clusters of patients — more than 50 infected people — can now be tracked to that farm.
"That means even if we have no (positive) sprout test results yet we have indications based on tracking nutrition the affected people eat," she said. "We are even looking for more cases that can be linked to the farm."
Despite 300 more infections, Bahr said the overall trend showed fewer new cases of illness, and expressed cautious optimism.
"I cannot yet give an all-clear, but after an analysis of the numbers there's reason for hope," Bahr told ARD television. "The numbers are continuously falling — which nonetheless means that there can still be new cases and that one unfortunately has to expect new deaths too — but overall new infections are clearly going down."
The Koch Institute did not fully back Bahr's optimism. It said there was a declining trend in new cases but added it was not clear whether that was because the outbreak is truly waning or because consumers are staying away from the raw vegetables believed to be the source of the E. coli.
In neighboring Poland, officials confirmed a second case of E. coli poisoning, a boy who apparently became infected from his father, who had been in Germany.
Consumers across Europe are shunning fruit and vegetables, and the German warning against eating cucumbers, tomatoes, lettuce and sprouts is still in place. EU farmers are claiming losses up to $611 million a week as ripe produce rots in fields and warehouses.
In Madrid on Wednesday, Spanish farmers handed out 40 tons of fruit and vegetables to draw attention to their plight. People lined up for 100 meters (yards) along dozens of tables to snap up a wide and colorful variety of produce, including cherry tomatoes, lettuce, peppers, cucumbers and watermelons.
"The EU has tried to look good to everyone but they can keep their euro150 million," said Francisco Gil, head of the COAG farm association in the southeastern Murcia region.
The EU, he said, "has not addressed the real issue. It is not about money. It is about fixing the problem."
Spain, Italy and France have angrily demanded compensation for their farmers who have been blindsided by losses in the outbreak. On Wednesday, the EU farm chief raised his offer of aid to farmers to $306 million from an earlier proposal of $219 million.
In China, authorities ordered stepped-up health inspections for travelers arriving from Germany to prevent the super-toxic strain from reaching its shores.
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